Would you live in a prison cell? How about if it got a colorful makeover? If you think you could, you’re in luck. Amsterdam is practically running out of prisoners to occupy its jails, so it is turning its empty prisons into temporary homes for people in need. Controversy, however, began to stir when it was decided that some of those to be housed in the empty prisons are refugees and asylum seekers, with the most famous being the Bijlmerbajes Prison, which is better known today as Lola Lik.

Due to a “shortage of prisoners,” The Netherlands has managed to shut down at least 20 empty prisons since 2013. A combination of relaxed drug laws, a shift to rehabilitation, and an electronic ankle monitoring system have made it possible for the country to reduce the number of prisoners behind bars. In fact, the system has worked so well and The Netherlands’ prisons are so empty that the country has resorted to importing prisoners from Norway to keep the facilities open to safeguard thousands of prison jobs.

Empty prisons like Bijlmerbajes are being turned into hubs and homes for refugees.

Courtesy of Lola Lik

In June 2016, Bijlmerbajes Prison permanently shut down and the building was taken over by the City of Amsterdam. Later this year, the city is expected to raze the prison and create a residential complex, which will include “at least a thousand homes,” according to one source.

Shortly after the closure of the prison, LOLA a foundation that uses empty real estate for social initiatives, was commissioned by the Amsterdam municipality to turn Bijlmerbajes Prison into a creative hub, running educational and entertainment programs for ‘New Amsterdammers’ living in the center. LOLA was also tasked with transforming the prison’s cells into a temporary home for refugees and asylum seekers.

The foundation adopted the name Lola Lik for the prison facility. Leegstand Oplossers Amsterdam, or LOLA, literally means making proper use of the space available. Lik is Dutch slang for prison and, at the same time, means a stroke of paint.

Empty prisons like Bijlmerbajes are being turned into hubs and homes for refugees.

Courtesy of Lola Lik

Lola Lik, which has the capacity to house up to 1,000 people, launched a pilot project to explore new ways of integrating refugees into the Amsterdam community. “And the use of prisons is mainly practical,” Lola Lik’s Director David van Dommeln tells progrss. “A lot [of prisons] are empty and have small rooms and sanitary facilities. The feedback I got [from the tenants] was not ideal, but, [for them], it was nice to have a private space and a key [to] their own room. I think we also helped out a lot with changing the looks of the site. From the moment the garden was finished it was already a different place with a different feel.”

Lola Lik’s Creative Producer, Giada Tagliamonte, tells progrss how the organization overcame the controversy around refugees and asylum seekers and how they made the former prison cells seem more welcoming. “The [Bijlmerbajes] prison is a bit different as much as a prison can be different,” she tells progrss. “There were some elements that were bringing a little bit more comfort to the cells [than a regular prison would],” she adds, explaining that each cell has a private toilet and enjoys a higher level of privacy than other prisons across Europe.

“I don’t want it to sound like I’m saying that living in a cell is pleasant – this is me speaking, not in the mouth of LOLA,” says Tagliamonte. However, she adds that she personally believes that the organization has managed to challenge social norms through the project.

“Indeed, I believe the temporary spaces were, in some form, not exactly what anyone had dreamed of. But…I felt [that] the real focus was the will of creating a community where each individual is viewed and approached as such,” she argues. “Hence the strong attention on daily, weekly, and monthly activities that would involve the entire community [creates] networks of collaborations for a true solid integration across the social grid.”

Tagliamonte says that the Lola Lik team’s main priority was to try to deconstruct all of the connotations that are attached to refugees. The Central Organization For Reception Of Asylum Seekers (COA) also helped in making this project possible by rehabilitating and guiding the refugees and asylum seekers.

Courtesy of COA.

The demand for asylum reception can vary greatly, COA’s Alet Bouwmeester tells progrss. COA constantly struggles with having a limited number of beds. In the future, they would like to make use of spaces such as bungalow parks and hotels to address that challenge. “We changed a lot [about the vacant Bijlmerbajes complex] and we [tried not to make] it look and feel like a prison,” Bouwmeester says.

Guests arriving at Lola Lik are encouraged to share their skills and learn new crafts. “Their safety is our main priority along with their health and daily needs. The country is new [to] them, so we are their guide in Holland.”

In 2016, co-living community Startblok (Dutch for ‘starting block’) began providing housing to refugee with the help of their contact persons affiliated with The Dutch Refugee Council, VluchtelingenWerk Nederland. Startblok is largely managed by the community for the community, with the belief that adopting a self-management approach will contribute to social cohesion and community-building.

There are at least 45,000 people seeking asylum in The Netherlands. In spite of the disputes on xenophobia and nationalism in Europe, Amsterdam is known to shelter refugees with a goal to challenge stereotypes and racism by engaging them in Dutch creative hubs side-by-side with young Amsterdammers. However, it remains to be seen how filling up Amsterdam’s vacant prisons with refugees – even if temporarily will change stereotypes about “refugees.”

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